Driving through the mountains of Ethiopia from the capital, Addis Ababa, to the northern region of Wollo, one cannot help but be impressed by the towering trees, the green, rolling hills, and the cool, crisp mountain air. Prior to traveling to Ethiopia, I had heard it was a beautiful country, but I soon realized pictures and anecdotes couldn’t do justice to the sheer beauty of the country that is known as the birthplace of humanity.
I traveled with two other Concern Worldwide staff members from Dublin and New York, one student and teacher from the United States and four students and two teachers from Ireland. The students who participated were fairly familiar with Concern’s work overseas, as the Irish students had debated development issues over the past year and had won the national Concern debates and the American student, Stachel, is a member of the Global Concerns Classroom (GCC) Club at her school and has served as a student leader for the past two years. Together, we spent six days visiting several different Concern programs and learning more about the rich Ethiopian culture.
The first Concern project we visited was a water project in Terefo, a small village in the district of Wollo. Prior to Concern’s water project, more than 180 households had to travel two to three miles to get water from a dirty river. Typhoid and diarrhea plagued the community and women and children were forced to devote hours of their day simply to retrieve the water. Concern tapped into a natural spring at the top of a hill, far from the dirty river, and installed pipes and water spigots at various locations throughout the community.
Today, the community has enough clean water for their families and livestock, the time it takes to retrieve water has been reduced to about five to ten minutes, and the cases of water-related diseases have all but disappeared. Due to its success, the project has been replicated several times and now reaches about 500 households.
Together, we spent six days visiting several different Concern programs and learning more about the rich Ethiopian culture.
Following our visit to Terefo, we spent the next couple of days visiting programs in Dessie Zuria, a remote area in Wollo. Of all of the programs we visited, the most striking to me was the women’s self-help group. In Dessie Zuria, gender-based violence and early marriage is widespread. Concern partnered with a national non-governmental organization (NGO), Women’s Support Association (WSA), to organize a self-help group for women as both an educational and support system.
Through their weekly meetings, their relationships with each other, and Concern and WSA staff, the women learned about their rights, gained the confidence to talk about gender-based violence and early marriage issues with their husbands, and began a savings program to help them combat the extreme poverty of their community. According to the women, incidents of domestic violence and rape have dropped since the women’s self-help group started. The program also trained government officials, which has helped to prosecute perpetrators of gender-based violence.
The women in the self-help group were inspiring to say the least. They were confident and exhibited an unwavering commitment to improve not only their own lives, but also the lives of their families. However, what I found most striking about this program is that it technically ended a year ago. Despite the end of funding and the direct guidance of Concern and WSA, women continue to meet once a week, determined not to lose the significant gains they’ve achieved.
According to the women, incidents of domestic violence and rape have dropped since the women’s self-help group started.
At the end of the meeting, someone asked the women if they were worried that their progress might suffer due to the high turnover of government officials. After the question was translated, hands shot up across the room, everyone eager to answer. One woman stood up and said, quite emphatically, that it didn’t matter who was serving in the government offices. They now know their rights and they are not going to let anyone interfere or try to take them away from them.
As a former teacher, I hope the students left Ethiopia with not only a more accurate understanding of what extreme poverty is and the challenges we face in fighting it, but also an appreciation for the solutions that we saw working first-hand. One student said in her evaluation at the end of the trip:
“I learned that it’s not always about relief or aid, but education. Concern educates the community to help live sustainable lives. They work with locals to help implement projects and to ensure that, when Concern leaves the area, they will be ok.”